PEORIA, IL -- If everything old is new again, then the old hands with Peoria School District 150 have seen it all before. And they have not forgotten.
The District 150 School Board on Sept. 12 got an earful from unhappy students, parents and others about the sudden closing last week of an alternative school at Woodruff Career and Technical Center, formerly Woodruff High School. It had opened two weeks earlier.
Even worse, it brought back memories of the closing of Woodruff High School on a 4-3 vote.
The alternative school at Woodruff was for students who cannot function in regular classrooms, some obviously special education students, others just unique, or witnesses to gun violence, or young parents, even transgender. They spoke before the board, accompanied by parents, to say they loved the school and their teachers. They said they had been harassed and bullied at their previous schools, or just unable learn in a traditional classroom.
Their teachers also spoke, saying how they loved these students, how the school was like a family. Some were tearful.
So once again, even with a new superintendent who this time is liked by all, a well functioning school has been closed, without adequate notice or planning.
The irony of the district recently hiring someone to work with social and emotional learning for students while closing a school that was successful in those goals was noted by several speakers.
The School Board expressed concern. They never voted on the closing, saying it was up to the administration. But they are taking the heat.
Superintendent Sharon Kherat said "it was never the intent to cause discomfort. There are 69 or 70 students whose needs are met, but over 1,500 whose needs are not being met. It's a balancing act."
The school was closed to transfer the students back to regular classrooms and the teachers into classrooms now being taught by substitutes. The district has a serious teacher shortage, reportedly about 50 open positions.
But one teacher noted that these are middle school and high school teachers, whereas the vacancies are in the lower grades, and these teachers are not certified for those grades.
There were many riveting moments during the long public comment period. As usual, board critic Terry Knapp tossed a grenade into the discussion. "You want to pass a referendum and you're doing this?" he asked.
Then he recalled the closing of Woodruff High School, with 900 students, 200 seniors, "so Glen Barton and Roberta Parks could have their charter school."
Last year the charter school Quest graduated 36 seniors, he said, with the district spending $5.5 million a year on it.
The displaced Woodruff High School students who were sent to other high schools never fitted in, he said, and lost their high school years.
The district spends $2 million on Valeska Hinton for three and four-year-olds, but never has done any research to see whether that school makes a difference in their school careers, Knapp said.
Board members expressed support for the superintendent but also concern for what has occurred. "Good people can make bad decisions. This was messed up," said the newest board member Dan Walther, adding he had never heard of this special school.
Whether the board will do anything to rectify this situation remains to be seen. Don't bet on it.
Here is a recording of the comments and the board's reactions.
-- Elaine Hopkins
Here are the comments of Sharon Crews:
I learned long ago that teachers who move up the ladder quickly morph into principals, administrators, and superintendents. Teachers and administrators are never going to agree wholeheartedly because each group approaches educational problems from a different perspective. The best we can hope for are board members willing to listen to teachers and other stakeholders. Listening is only the beginning—the results of listening must be compromise.
And that is the case with proximity learning, which I expected to be on tonight’s agenda since there had been no vote yet. I fear that once again momentous decisions are being made with little input from teachers and little discussion and no vote from the board. The board members who were or are teachers and the student board member gave opinions that prove they understand that teacher-student interactions and student interactions with each other are valuable components of the learning process. Of course, the board is mainly interested in finding a solution for unfilled teaching positions.
Manual has once again been chosen as the guinea pig. From 1994 through 2007 a significant number of devoted, experienced Manual teachers retired (five of us from the English department) and were replaced by very competent teachers who, also, loved Manual and its students. Then in 2008, in order to acquire thousands of dollars, the board chose a grant that required that over one half of the faculty be exchanged for either new, inexperienced or new-to-Manual teachers. There were few familiar faces to greet students as they entered Manual’s classrooms that year. Much continuity and much of Manual’s history were lost. Manual has not had a stable faculty since then. Students were and are the losers.
To make matters worse, that grant led to the board’s selection of a block schedule program that exposed students to English, math, science, and social studies classes for only one semester, leaving them with a semester and a summer—7 months--to forget much of what they had learned. Four years of students were deprived of adequate learning opportunities just when NCLB testing was at its height. No wonder Manual students did so poorly on the tests.
Dr. Kherat, you were given the task of supporting the program and making it work. A year later, you stood at this podium to tell the board that they and the superintendent were not supporting the program. I believe your requests were ignored. Now the roles are reversed. Please, heed tonight’s requests,
I hear talk about the importance of teacher-parent connections, but the proximity program will make it impossible for that connection. There will be no teacher to call parents or to meet with parents at open house or any other time.
At the last meeting three exemplary Manual grads —Derrick Booth, Jeff Adkins-Dutro, Bernice Gordon-Young—stood at this podium—they should be a reminder to all of you that today’s Manual students deserve the same opportunities those graduates were given—the right to a stable faculty with which to build enduring relationships. Please don’t continue to further harm Manual students. Now you, also, have to deal with the complaints from Woodruff teachers and parents.
You can’t hear me now because you are worried about the serious problems facing the district as a result of ignoring years of warnings about laying off teachers at the end of the year. I can only imagine the total number of teachers that have found other jobs over the years instead of waiting for this district to recall them. There is no hope for this district if you are not willing to admit to and find solutions for all the reasons why new teachers are not drawn to this district.
Congratulations to Alex Sierra for his acceptance from Georgetown. - 30 -